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Europe’s largest lithium mine is caught in a political maelstrom

Europe's largest lithium mine is caught in a political maelstrom

Coming shortly after a year marked by protests, this weekend’s elections were meant to be the watershed move for Serbian environmentalists, says Engjellushe Morina, senior policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Just as we expected there to be a small victory for eco-friendly movements in Serbia, we have the Russia debate,” she says, referring to the invasion of Ukraine. by Russia.

She believes the return to war in Europe has strengthened the ruling coalition parties and incumbent President Aleksandar Vučić. The ruling coalition that approved the mine, led by President Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party, comfortably led polls from Thursday.

Back in the village of Gornje Nedeljice, Petković feels that Rio Tinto is not worried about the election results. She believes that the company has invested too much to stop, regardless of the outcome. The miner has created its own technology to mine jadarite, which is found nowhere else in the world. Since the government canceled the project, says Petković, there have been no signs that Rio Tinto is preparing to leave. The machines remained and the miner continued to buy local real estate, she claims.

On March 30, another militant organization, Marš sa Drine, published details of a phone call they say prove Rio Tinto is preparing to resume work at the mine after the election. The phone call took place between a professor from the University of Belgrade involved in the Rio Tinto project and an anonymous source posing as an employee of Rio Sava, the Serbian subsidiary of Rio Tinto. During the conversation, the two discuss the arrival of equipment from the German company DMT and an Austrian company called Thyssen, which the professor says will “probably” arrive in April. Neither DMT, Thyssen, nor the professor responded to WIRED’s request for comment. In a statement, a spokesman for Rio Tinto called the “alleged” recording “misinformation”, adding that the agreement with the two suppliers was signed before its authorization for the mine was withdrawn.

“They lied to us in January”, Marš sa Drine noted on Twitter, urging their followers to vote against the project on Sunday. “Why is any piece of equipment, be it a lock or a bulldozer, discussed in the context of a project that has been CANCELED?”

Some believe that Rio Tinto faced so much opposition in Serbia because of the company’s legacy, associated with various case environmental damage. “Historically, mining companies have been viewed so negatively that it doesn’t matter in the public eye if they transition to minerals that are used for the energy transition,” Burlinghaus says.

Resistance to electric vehicle mining across Europe is not nimbyism, says Diego Marin, associate policy officer for environmental justice at the NGO European Environmental Bureau. “Communities say, ‘Our areas are devastated and sacrificed for what? Cars for the rich that our communities can never afford,” he says. “Ultimately, we pay the price that our air gets cleaner but our land gets poorer.” It’s not that these activists don’t want clean air. But an idea is starting to spread among green groups in Europe: that the green transition is turning into a new image of capitalism that still focuses on mass production that is harmful to the planet.